‘Whoever has heard of St Gingo’
by THOMAS LOVELL BEDDOES
Titmouse: How shall I believe such things?
Mandrake: How you can: but believe, or thou shall be made an example of like St Gingulph’s relict. List to her legend and tremble, youth, for ’tis exceeding true, and by St Cecilia, most musically melancholy. [Death’s Jest Book 1.iv]
Whilst the urbane and genial R. H. Barham was entertaining British society with The Lay of St Gengulphus, his troubled and unfulfilled contemporary, the poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes was also inspired to celebrate the Saint in verse. The earliest known version of this poem, entitled The New Cecilia, appears in a letter dated 13th May 1837 written by Beddoes, in Zurich, to Thomas Forbes Kelsall – Letter 41 of his published correspondence.
Having noted that the hills were covered with snow, and the temperature 6°F, he writes to his friend:
My fingers are now so cold that I must put them into my pockets and sing you a very objectionable piece of foolery, enough to ruin the reputation of any one, who wishes to introduce his writings into good society – Allons! It’s a sparkling piece of anecdote filed out of the golden Legend – and extracted from Chap V of the Ivory Gate – or lesser Dionysiacs – (my new book – )
[After giving a version of the poem, Beddoes continues:] What stuff! I shall not give you any more extracts, for fear of spoiling your appetite for the promised laughable mouse in toto.
The projected work The Ivory Gate never achieved publication, and only survives in a fragmentary state. The poem, however, was subsequently incorporated into Beddoes’ much revised dramatic work Death’s Jest Book, (published posthumously) where it is attributed to the character Homunculus Mandrake.
The poem is not in Beddoes’ characteristic style. The constant use of perversely improbable rhymes – widow/did do, inviting ale/nightingale, and of unexpected enjambements, make it clear that this is a parody of the style of the Ingoldsby Legends prompted, as the subject matter suggests, by the publication of Barham’s Lay of St Gengulphus in the spring of 1837. Unlike Barham however, who coyly modifies the nature of the punishment inflicted on the Saint’s wife, Beddoes makes this the chief feature of the poem.
The following text is based on that in Letter 41, but some readings, and the whole of the sixth stanza (which is lacking in the letter) are from the version in Death’s Jest Book.
The New Cecilia a
Whoever has heard of St. Gingo
must know that the gipsy,
he married, was tipsy
every night of her life with old stingo:b
and, after the death of St. Gingo,
the wonders, he did do,
his infidel widow
denied with unladylike lingo –
‘A parcel of nonsense together,’ &
tost Gingo a fig,c and a feather end.d
‘He no more can work wonder
than a clyster-pipee thunder
or I sing a psalm with my nether end.’
As she spoke it, her breakfast beginning on
a tankard of homebrewed inviting ale,
Lo! the part she was sitting & sinning on
struck the 100th psalm f up like a nightingale.
Loud as birds in an Indian forest, or g
a mystic memnonian marble h in
the desert at daybreak, that chorister
breathed forth its Æolian warbling:
That creature seraphic and spherical,
her firmament, kept up its clerical
thanksgivings, until she did aged die,
cooing and praising and chirping, alert in
her petticoats, swung j like a curtain
let down on the tail of a Tragedy.
Therefore, Ladies, repent & be sedulous
in praising your lords, lest, ah well a day!
a judgement befall the incredulous,
& their latter ends melt into melody.
Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803 – 1849)
a) Cecilia – The title is an allusion to the patron saint of music
b) Stingo – strong ale
c) fig – An insulting gesture, more widely practised in southern Europe, made with the fist and the thumb.
d) feather end – An insulting upward gesture made with a quill pen, the tip (feather end) of which characteristically parts in the form of a V. In the absence of a quill pen, a similar effect can be achieved with two fingers.
e) clyster-pipe – An instrument for administering bouillon pointu.
f) struck the hundreth psalm up – Later altered to: struck the old hundredth up…
g) Loud as birds in the Indian forest, or… Later altered to: Like psophia in an American forest, or…
h) memnonian marble – The northernmost of the two celebrated colossi of Amenophis III at Luxor was credited with oracular powers and reputed to sing at dawn. The emperor Hadrian was favoured with three occurrences of this phenomenon in the year 130.
j) Petticoats swung – The grammar is ambiguous at this point in both versions of the poem.
© Paul Trenchard
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Page last revised 15.04.2011